Thorstein Veblen



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This information in this section is from Dead Sociologists' Society created by Larry R. Ridener, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Radford University. Retrieved on August 12, 2002, from

Thorstein Veblen

The Person

Veblen drew a fine self-portrait in an essay entitled, "The Intellectual Pre- eminence of Jews in Modern Europe," which he wrote toward the end of his career. He says there that the Jewish man of ideas is saved from being intel- lectually passive "at the cost of losing his secure place in the scheme of con- ventions into which he has been born and . . . of finding no similarly secure place in the scheme of gentile conventions into which he is thrown." As a consequence, "he becomes a disturber of the intellectual peace, but at the cost of becoming an intellectual wayfaring man, a wanderer in the intellectual no- man's-land, seeking another place to rest, farther along the road, somewhere over the horizon. [Such Jews] are neither a complaisant nor a contented lot, these aliens of the uneasy feet." Nothing could better characterize Veblen's own life. Intentionally or not, he summed up in this passage the price and the glory of his career.

A Marginal Norwegian

Thorstein Veblen was born on a frontier farm in Wisconsin on July 30, 1857. He was a son of the Middle Border that produced in his generation Lester Ward, Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, and Charles Beard, all men who, like himself, were to mount an assault against the re- ceived wisdom of the intellectual establishment of the East. But unlike these other men, Veblen was almost as much a stranger to the culture of the Mid- west as he was to that of the East.

Veblen was the sixth of twelve children of Norwegian immigrants, his par- ents, Thomas Anderson Veblen and Kari Bunde Veblen, having come to America ten years before his birth. They were of old Norwegian peasant stock, but had had a very hard time as children of tenant farmers in the old country. Veblen's paternal grandfather had been tricked out of his right to the family farm and had fallen from the honored status of farm owner to that of a despised tenant. His mother's father had likewise been forced to sell his farm in order to meet lawyers' fees and, crushed by this loss, had died still a young man, leaving Veblen's mother an orphan at the age of five.

After Veblen's parents emigrated to America to settle first in Wisconsin and then in Minnesota, they encountered obstacles similar to those faced by their parents in Norway. Land speculators drove them off their first land claim; in their second venture they were forced to sell half their land in order to pay usurious interest rates. Hatred of tricksters, speculators, and shyster lawyers ran deep in the family tradition and found characteristic expression in much of Veblen's later writing.

Despite such obstacles, the Veblens managed through hard work, thrift, and single-minded devotion to the agricultural task at hand to acquire a self- sufficient farmstead in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where Thorstein was born. When he was eight years old, the family moved to a larger farm on the prairie lands of Wheeling Township in Minnesota. There his father became a leading farmer in the homogeneous Norwegian community, which, like other Norwegian farming communities, lived in almost complete isolation from the sur- rounding world. Norwegian immigrants seldom met Yankees, except for busi- ness reasons or at political conventions. Frugal, hard-working and somewhat dour men piously following the prescriptions of their Lutheran religion, they had contempt for the loose ways of the Yankees and saw in them the repre- sentatives of a shallow, pleasure-loving, impious civilization. To the Norwe- gians, the Yankees seemed to be speculators, wheelers and dealers all, men who couldn't be trusted, and whose ways were not only foreign but abhorrent. These sentiments also later found their way into Veblen's writings.

Although Veblen's parents were deeply rooted in the Norwegian com- munity and its traditional ways, they were nevertheless atypical. Their pious- ness notwithstanding, they refused to take part in sectarian quarrels over questions of theology or church government, which tended to split these com- munities. Thomas Veblen minded his own affairs and was respected in the community as a man of judgment and intelligence who, however, showed an unusual independence of conduct.

The son, quite early, took after the father. Children and elders alike were impressed by his precocious intelligence but found his almost compulsively independent ways unsettling. In his early youth, he had fist fights with the boys, teased the girls, and pestered the older people. In his adolescent years, he sublimated aggression into sarcasm, corrosive wit, and scepticism. When the time came for his confirmation, he submitted to the rite but made it clear that he had already lost the faith. All in all, Veblen was as maladjusted in the Norwegian community and as alien to its life styles as he was later to be in the American milieu.

From Coser, 1977:275-276.

A Marginal Student

It is hard to say what would have become of him had he stayed in the Norwegian settlement. As it was, his father, now relatively well-to-do, decided that the road to self-improvement was through education. He would not exploit his children on the farm, as was the wont throughout the community, but he sent them to the higher institutions of learning of alien America. In 1874, when he found that the local preacher considered his son Thorstein a suitable candidate for the ministry, he decided that the boy should enter nearby Carleton College. Thorstein himself was not consulted. He was sum- moned from the field and placed in the family buggy with his baggage already packed. The first he learned that he was to enter Carleton was when he arrived there; then he was told that he was to live in a log cabin his father had built for his children on the edge of the campus. For seventeen years, Thorstein Veblen had lived in a cultural enclave, speaking little or no English; now he was suddenly being projected into the surrounding American culture from which he had been almost completely insulated.

Carleton College had been founded just a few years before Veblen's arrival by Congregationalists who attempted to build on the prairies of Minne- sota a replica of New England gentility. It was a thoroughly Christian and earnestly evangelical school where intemperance, profanity, and the use of tobacco were strictly forbidden, as was "all Sabbath and evening association between the sexes, except by special permission." In teaching, the classics, moral philosophy, and religion were stressed and the natural sciences were slighted. English literature was taught during one quarter of the senior year only, and American history was not taught at all. The really important courses were those in moral philosophy. The reigning doctrine was Scottish Common Sense, as first expounded by Thomas Reid and developed by Sir William Hamilton. This safe philosophy cast no doubts upon the literal in- terpretation of the Bible and religious orthodoxy and was meant to counter the scepticism of Hume and his school. Reid taught that fundamental and self-evident truths were enshrined in the common sense of mankind and that "anything manifestly contrary to them is what we call absurd."

Quite predictably Veblen, already a village sceptic at home, took badly to the spirit of Carleton. He spent six years there, but the education he acquired stemmed in the main from his voracious independent reading rather than from his teachers. The only faculty man who seems to have impressed him was John Bates Clark, in later years a major figure in economics at Columbia, but at that time a professor of odds and ends who taught everything from English composition and moral philosophy to political economy. Clark, whose melioris- tic and mildly socialist ideas appealed to Veblen, was probably the only teacher who liked this youth with a "mind clothed in sardonic humour," as a faculty member described it. That Norwegian bull in the genteel china shop of New England culture disturbed his elders no end. Refusing to take seriously all the pieties he was supposed to absorb, he defended himself by mordant wit, cor- rosive satire, and just plain cussedness.

The dignitaries of Carlton were undoubtedly relieved when Veblen gradu- ated in 1880. Although he is probably Carleton's most famous alumnus, to this day there is no hall or building named in his honor--not even a plaque com- memorating him on campus. Veblen, in his turn, was glad his Carleton days were over. While he had fun delivering a "Plea for Cannibalism" before the faculty and students earnestly concerned with the conversion of the heathen, or pronouncing an "Apology for a Toper" before scandalized teetotalers, such prankishness was really only a desperate defense against his repugnant sur- roundings. He left Carleton with a fine, mainly self-acquired, education, and with an enduring love of his fellow student, Ellen Rolfe, the niece of the president, whom he was to marry a few years later.

From Coser, 1977:276-278.

A Marginal Academic

After his graduation, Veblen tried his hand teaching at Monona Academy in Madison, Wisconsin, but the atmosphere at this Norwegian school proved as oppressive as that of Carleton. Rent by theological disputes over predestina- tion, election, and strong church authority, subjects totally uncongenial to Veb- len, the school closed permanently at the end of the year. When one of his brothers, Andrew, father of the famous mathematician Oswald Veblen, decided to study mathematics at Johns Hopkins, Thorstein accompanied him to Balti- more, expecting to study philosophy. Thus began what Bernard Rosenberg has called "a torturous apprenticeship in academic maladaptation.''

When Veblen came East, his thoughts had already been shaped by the agrarian unrest and radicalism that had swept over the Midwest soon after the end of the Civil War. Moreover, when a German exile of the 1848 revolution had opened his library to him, Veblen became acquainted with Kant, Mill, Hume, Rousseau, Spencer, Huxley, and Tyndall--great intellects who had not been discussed in the lecture halls of Carleton. Egalitarian and radical in his outlook, Veblen once again felt alien in the leisurely culture of the South that prevailed in Baltimore and at Johns Hopkins. Lonely, homesick, and short of money, he was moreover intellectually ill-disposed toward the philosophy offerings of that school. He took three courses with George S. Morris but was not impressed by this Hegelian philosopher, who felt that conventional manners and morals might find an even better defender in Hegel than in pre- vailing Scottish Common Sense. Veblen attended a course in political economy with a young man, Richard T. Ely, who was to become one of the main repre- sentatives of the new reform-oriented economics. But neither man cared for the other. To judge from Veblen's later writings, the only man to have made some impact on him was a temporary lecturer in logic named Charles Sanders Peirce, who had already written a series of papers emphasizing that "the whole function of thought is to produce habits of action."

When Veblen failed to receive a scholarship at Johns Hopkins, he decided to transfer to Yale to study philosophy under its president, the Reverend Noah Porter. At Yale, as almost everywhere else, philosophy was still considered the handmaiden of theology, and Veblen, the agnostic, found himself among divinity students, most of whom were preparing to teach the gospel. As a means of defense, Veblen accentuated his sardonic attitudes and distance-creat- ing techniques, and he cultivated an air of complete aloofness and worldly- wise scepticism. Even those whom he managed to befriend later said that they found him trying, though stimulating.

At this time the intellectual atmosphere at Yale was charged by epic battles between its president, Noah Porter, a man still deeply steeped in the pieties of New England transcendentalism, and the sociologist William Graham Sum- ner, who preached the gospel of Herbert Spencer. Sumner relentlessly fought in the name of science and evolution, of Darwin and Spencer, against the theological features of the school. A month before Veblen left Yale, Sumner was victorious and the whole curriculum of Yale was revamped. Science won over religion.

Veblen found himself attracted to Sumner as he had never been attracted to any of his other teachers. In later years he was to dissect Sumner's conserva- tive economics in class, but, according to Dorfman, Sumner was "the only man for whom he expressed . . . a deep and unqualified admiration." What at- tracted him was not only Sumner's Spencerian and evolutionary thought, but his independence of mind, his refusal to go along with the crowd, his com- bative individualism. To be sure, the man who was to write withering attacks on the predacious characteristics of captains of industry was hardly impressed by the views of a teacher who saw in these men the flowers of civilization. Veblen could not accept Sumner's doctrine, but he loved the man and partly modeled himself after his image. He also managed to be on excellent terms with the Reverend Porter, under whom he did most of his work and who supervised his dissertation. Locally he was known as "Porter's chum." Porter esteemed Veblen's superior intelligence even though he must have been made uneasy by Veblen's conspicuous lack of reverence.

Veblen specialized in work on Kant and the post-Kantians, his first aca- demic paper being on Kant's Critique of Judgment. He was considered by Porter and some of his other teachers to be a highly intelligent, cultivated, though unconventional, young philosopher. But after he had received his doctorate, it became apparent that nobody was willing to give him an aca- demic position. College teachers, especially those in philosophy, were mainly recruited from the ranks of the divinity school. No faculty wanted a "Norskie," especially one around whom there seemed to hover a cloud of agnosticism or worse. After having spent two and a half years at Yale, Veblen returned home defeated and bitter. He now had a Ph.D. but no source of income or hope for a position.

Back on the farm, Veblen claimed that he was ill and needed special care. His brothers were inclined to believe that he was just plain loafing--a sin not lightly forgiven among Norwegian farm folk. In the meantime, Veblen read everything he could lay his hands on, roamed the woods, indulged in desultory botanical studies, did some hack writing for Eastern papers, and seemed to drift into a life of permanent dilettantism.

In 1888, Veblen married Ellen Rolfe, the daughter of one of the leading families of the Middle West. Her father, a grain-elevator and railroad magnate, was appalled that his daughter was marrying a shiftless atheistic son of Norwe- gian immigrants. But he made the best of it and allowed the young couple to settle on one of his Iowa farms. Veblen now made a few half-hearted attempts to gain a teaching position, but all these moves proved to be of no avail. In the meantime he and his wife followed news of the radical agrarian movement that swept the Middle West with passionate concern. Together they read Edward Bellamy's socialist utopia, Looking Backward , which had just been published. Ellen Rolfe wrote later that "this was the turning point in our lives." In his Iowa retreat, Veblen immersed himself deeply in the study of economics, both the orthodox and the heterodox variety. Looking at the passing scene of agrarian and labor unrest, of increasing radicalization among farmers and workmen alike, he began to feel that economics might provide answers to the crisis. After ten years of frustration and idle drifting, Veblen finally decided to return East to study economics, registering at Cornell in the winter term of 1891.

The professor in charge of economics at Cornell, J. Laurence Laughlin, was sitting in his study when an anemic-looking man wearing a coonskin cap and corduroy trousers entered and announced: "I am Thorstein Veblen." Laughlin became so impressed with Veblen that he secured a special university grant for him, even though all regular fellowships had already been filled. Heartened by this modest encouragement, Veblen now began to get down to the business of serious writing. His first paper in economics, "Some Neglected Points in the Theory of Socialism," adumbrated his later interest. It was an attempt to use Spencerian evolutionary method while arguing against Spencer that without the abolition of private property and free competition the crisis of the current industrial order could not be overcome. Several fairly technical papers for The Quarterly Journal of Economics followed in short order. Veb- len's mentor, Laughlin, thought so highly of them that he arranged for a fellowship for Veblen at the new University of Chicago, where Laughlin had just been appointed head professor of economics.

The University of Chicago, where Veblen stayed from 1892 to 1906, provided the most congenial academic setting he was ever to find. The aggres- sive president, William Rainey Harper, had managed in a few years to attract a most distinguished faculty, and Veblen found a number of colleagues with whom he could engage in lively interchange. John Dewey in philosophy, William I. Thomas in sociology, Jacques Loeb in physiology, to name just a few, influenced him deeply and in turn were stimulated by him. Veblen later wrote a venomous portrait of Harper as a prime example of those "captains of erudition" who prostitute genuine scholarship in their drive for competitive standing in the academic world. There was much truth in what Veblen said, but it must be acknowledged that, no matter how autocratic his administra- tion, no matter what questionable methods Harper may have used to extract ever increasing funds from the University's founder, John D. Rockefeller, he attracted a first-rate faculty to Chicago and so made it possible for Veblen to enjoy the company of peers and colleagues that he could genuinely respect.

This is not to say that Veblen's Chicago career was without difficulties. Al- though he soon took over the editorship of The Journal of Political Economy, which Laughlin had founded soon after their arrival, Veblen was not originally a member of the faculty, but only a tutor. It was not until three years after coming to the University that he was promoted, at the age of 38, to instructor. His promotion to assistant professor had to wait another five years. There were a number of reasons for this academic neglect. Veblen was unorthodox in his thinking, in his teaching, and in his love life.

Veblen now wrote profusely, but his many brilliant contributions to The Journal of Political Economy were scarcely of a sort to please the more staid members of his academic audience. They were, in fact, fierce assaults upon prevailing utilitarian and classic doctrine in economics, and upon the custom and use of capitalist enterprise in the United States and elsewhere. Ranging widely over the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and economics, Veblen proceeded with mordant wit and sarcasm to undermine the received wisdom of economic theory. Whether reviewing books by Sombart or Schmol- ler, by Marx or Labriola, whether writing a fundamental paper such as the one entitled "Why Is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science?" Veblen was single- minded in his iconoclastic enterprise of demolishing conventional ideas in economics and the social sciences generally.

Veblen's teaching methods were even more unorthodox than his writings. He seemed to make a deliberate effort to discourage students from taking his courses. His lectures were wide ranging, and he usually presented the material in a rambling and unorganized manner. As a result, his audience never quite knew what to expect next. One of his former students describes his teaching thus:

He would come into the classroom with a half-dozen books under his arm, sit down bashfully behind his desk, and commence mumbling through his whiskers the characteristic economic blasphemies for which he was famous. His inimitable wit played over the field and made what might have been a rather dreary exercise something to chuckle over. Judged by con- ventional standards, he was the world's worst teacher. He seldom knew at the beginning of the hour what he would say or where he would arrive at its end. . . . I felt that these mumbling lectures were a good deal of a bore to him except for the opportunity they afforded him for flashes of wit and irony, and he took little interest in the question of whether his students were reading lessons and doing work in the course or not.

Veblen found the task of evaluating students or grading papers pro- foundly distasteful and as a consequence usually gave the whole class, as the spirit moved him, either a C or a B. When students tried to pin him down and asked him to say in plain language what he meant by his oracular and illusive pronouncements, he usually brushed them off with a sardonic smile and a witty remark. When pressed hard, he would say: "Well, you know, I really don't think I quite understand it myself."

Despite all these calculated maneuvers to rebuff student interest, Veblen acquired some of his most distinguished followers--among them, Wesley Mitchell, Robert Hoxie, and H. J. Davenport--in the Chicago days. These and a few others learned not to be put off by his manners and quirks and to reach down to the serious core of his teaching. But the bulk of his students couldn't make sense of his lectures, especially when their quest for certainty was met with Veblen's studied elusiveness. Wesley Mitchell has written that Veblen "took a naughty delight in making people squirm." As a result, his classes were large for the first few days, but soon only a handful remained. Students were not an audience that Veblen appreciated.

Veblen was unorthodox in his teaching and in his writing, but what shocked the university administration and many older colleagues profoundly was his unorthodox love life. Women were much attracted to him, and stories about his affairs and escapades soon were bandied around in scandalized fac- ulty gatherings. Mrs. Veblen was much perturbed by these affairs and threatened to leave him. Matters were not made easier by his habit of leaving in his pockets the letters he received from his female admirers. In all these affairs, Veblen was more the pursued than the pursuer. "What is one to do when a woman moves in on you?" he once complained. He remarked, some- what later, that "the president doesn't approve of my domestic arrangements. Nor do I." Nevertheless, his amatory escapades, even more than his scholarly unorthodoxy and his unconventional teaching, made him an outcast in the university's inner circles and eventually led to his dismissal.

In the Chicago days, Veblen pursued a kind of double-barreled strategy: he would alienate most students and faculty while at the same time building a close intellectual companionship with a chosen group of congenial colleagues. When his first and still most widely read book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, was published in 1899, the influence of such Chicago men as Jacques Loeb, Franz Boas, and William I. Thomas could be traced on virtually every page.

The Theory of the Leisure Class helped bring Veblen to the attention of a broader public than he had enjoyed so far. It brought him a circle of admirers who hailed the book as an epoch-making achievement. Lester Ward, the dean of American sociology, praised it highly, as did William D. Howells, the dean of American letters. Veblen was now an intellectual force to be reckoned with. His next book, The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904), perhaps his most systematic critique of American business, received a somewhat less enthusiastic response. Conservative critics complained about his destructiveness, his amor- alism, and his lack of appreciation for the virtues of free enterprise. Many radicals, appreciative of his critique of capitalism, were nevertheless unhappy about his rejection of Marxism. Others complained about his involuted style and lack of clarity. Yet critics and admirers seemed to agree that Veblenian doctrine was now an established feature on the intellectual scene.

As his fame outside the university grew, his life inside it became well nigh impossible. When Veblen returned from a trip to Europe in 1904, during which he had been accompanied by a female companion who was clearly not his wife, he was asked by the university authorities to sign a paper declaring that he would have no further relations with the woman involved. He replied that he was not in the habit of promising not to do what he was not ac- customed to doing. His days at Chicago were now numbered. He made efforts to secure a variety of appointments, among others to the Library of Congress, but all these efforts failed. Finally, Stanford University offered him an Associ- ate Professorship at a relatively high salary, and he joined its staff in 1906.

Veblen stayed at Stanford a little more than three years. His style of life, of morality, and of expression continued to be as unconventional as it had been in Chicago. His wife, who had left him for a time, returned to him in Palo Alto, but the marriage was clearly on the rocks. Matters were not made easier when one of his Chicago admirers wrote him that she wanted to be the mother of a great man's children. Mrs. Veblen left him again. When his amatory adventures could no longer be covered up, the administration forced him to resign in December 1909.

Veblen did not make the close intellectual friends at Stanford that he did at Chicago. The major elements of his "system," if such it can be called, had been set down in the Chicago days. His subsequent books, beginning with The Instinct of Workmanship (1914) on which he was working at Stanford, are, with one exception, only elaborations of previous lines of thought. Veblen probably was therefore less eager for intellectual stimulation than he had been earlier. He was as distant and aloof at Stanford as he had been at Chicago, but apparently made less of an effort to gather around himself a chosen few intel- lectual peers.

After having been forced to resign at Stanford, Veblen applied for a posi- tion at various schools. But the known circumstances of his severance from Stanford led every administration that was approached to recoil. Veblen was a marked man. To have offended the academic proprieties twice in a row was just too much. Finally, a former student, H. J. Davenport, came to the rescue and persuaded the president of the University of Missouri to offer Veblen a position in its School of Commerce, of which Davenport was dean. Ellen Rolfe Veblen now secured a divorce and, as a result, the president of Stanford, in a recommendation to make the temporary appointment permanent, wrote to the president of the University of Missouri that he saw no reason why Veb- len should not be retained since he had now straightened out his matrimonial affairs. In 19I4 Veblen married his second wife, Anne Fessenden Bradley, a divorcee whom he had known at Chicago and Stanford. The new Mrs. Veb- len, far less educated than the first, did all his typing, washed all the laundry and sewed all the clothes for her two daughters from an earlier marriage. She seems to have been totally devoted to Veblen, and being a radical like him, she was wholeheartedly in favor of "the movement," forever discussing the virtues of Socialism with the conventional faculty wives. She was also in full agree- ment with her husband's rather original ideas in regard to household duties. For example, the making of beds was considered a useless ceremonial; the covers were merely turned down over the foot of the bed so that they could be easily drawn up at night. Dishes were washed only when the total supply was exhausted; then they were stacked in a tub, a hose turned on them, and, after the water had been drained off, they were left to dry. Veblen also advocated, though he stopped short of practicing, the making of clothes out of discardable paper.

Although Veblen was coddled and indulged by a number of his former students now on the staff of the University of Missouri, he lacked the wider intellectual companionship he had enjoyed at Chicago and, to a degree, at Stanford. Neither faculty nor students at the University of Missouri were of the quality that Veblen had been accustomed to; as a result, he withdrew even more. As his health grew poorer and he began to feel the weight of years, his courses became even less organized than before, and his contempt for his stu- dents deepened. The university authorities were flattered to have attracted a man of his reputation, but they felt he was not contributing fully. As a result, he never got a permanent position and remained a lecturer, whose appoint- ment had to be renewed annually, during the entire seven years of his stay. His Stanford salary had been $3000; at Missouri he was paid under $2000 in his first few years and received only $2400 in 1917, just before he left.

While at Missouri, Veblen completed his third book, The Instinct of Workmanship, and soon after the beginning of World War I, he published his Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, one of his more important works. Soon after, there followed, An Inquiry into the Nature of the Peace (1918), a less significant and more ephemeral book. In the same year, he finally published his savage onslaught on the structure and operation of the American university, The Higher Learning in America, most of which had been put to paper in the Chicago days. The books that followed were either collections of previously published papers or restatements usually in somewhat more high-flown language, of points he had made before. These books included The Vested Interests and the Common Man (1919), The Place of Science in Modern Civilization (1919), The Engineers and the Price System (1921) and Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (1923).

From Coser, 1977:278-285.

A Marginal Freelance

In 1917, when questions of war and peace assumed foremost importance in the minds of many American intellectuals, Veblen resolved to move to Washington to be nearer to the center of events. In the fall of 1917 President Wilson had asked Colonel House to bring together an academic study group to discuss the terms of a possible peace settlement. Veblen prepared several memoranda for this inquiry, but his contributions seem not to have been much appreciated. Soon, however, he was given another opportunity to serve the administration. Having been granted a leave of absence from Missouri, he joined the Food Administration as a special investigator. But his time in government service was short and nasty: he was as little concerned with pleas- ing governmental bureaucrats as he had been with placating their academic counterparts. Veblen was put to work investigating methods for alleviating the manpower shortage in the Midwest, which was impeding the harvest. He suggested that the despised Industrial Workers of the World, the antiwar syndicalist and radical organization that had been persecuted by the govern- ment, be used for harvesting. He proposed that members of the I.W.W. be enrolled under officers of their own choice as members of a collective labor force. In this way agricultural productiveness would be enhanced, and the persecution of the I.W.W. would cease. As might be expected, the proposal was received with a combination of hostility and indifference, as was another memorandum that suggested how the shortage of sales personnel in retail establishments could be overcome. The administration need only install a farm-marketing and retail-distribution system under the parcel-post division of the Post Office to avoid the waste resulting from an excessive number of retail outlets. It must be conceded that a man who suggested to the administra- tion that his plans would lead to a reduction of the parasitic population of country towns by nine tenths, and a consequent increase in the available labor supply, was not exactly attuned to the political realities of governmental policy- making. Veblen's sojourn among the Washington bureaucrats ended rather abruptly, having lasted less than five months.

During the war, Veblen's influence among a small group of left-wing intellectuals and progressive academics began to grow. Francis Hackett, the literary editor of The New Republic, lost no opportunity to praise his work. Graham Wallas, in a review of Imperial Germany, called its author a genius. Max Weber and Werner Sombart had earlier expressed their appreciation of his work. Professor Frederick W. Taussig of Harvard called his Instinct of Workmanship a "brilliant and original book, like everything that comes from his pen," and Alvin Johnson spoke of the "sheer intellectual power of the author." Radicals like Floyd Dell wrote that his The Nature of the Peace "should result in his being either appointed to the President's War Council, or put in jail for treason."

What Dell wrote in jest proved to be not so far from reality. In view of the obscurity of Veblen's approach, the Postmaster of the City of New York ruled that Imperial Germany could not be mailed since it fell under the provisions of the Espionage Act, while the official governmental propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, believed it to be excellent war propaganda. Some government bureaus thought the book damaging to America, while, others thought it damaging to Germany.

In the fall of 1918, Veblen moved to New York to become an editor of The Dial, as well as a key contributor to it. The magazine, which Ralph Waldo Emerson had founded, was now proposing to devote itself to matters of international reconstruction and to the reform of industry and education. Although the masthead included other major figures, John Dewey and Ran- dolph Bourne among them, the magazine was soon referred to as the "Veblen- ian Dial." For a year or two, and despite personal tragedy--his wife had a psychotic breakdown and had to be removed to a sanitarium--Veblen now experienced for the first time the pleasures of being an intellectual celebrity. Fame, which had eluded him for so long, now came to the man of sixty.

Veblen's articles for The Dial, more savage and mordant even than his earlier writing, fitted perfectly the disillusioned mood that gripped the liberal world after the failure of Wilsonianism. Moreover, Veblen, who had up to this point always maintained the mask of the objective observer, now advocated a thoroughgoing revamping of the whole structure of American society. His writings in The Dial lacked the precision of his earlier work, but they made up for this by an impassioned rhetoric. Moreover, the man who had always held Marx at a distance, now praised the Russian Revolution. "The Bolshevist scheme of ideas," he wrote, "comes easy to the common man." He felt that salvation from the messy anarchy of predatory capitalism would come through the matter-of-fact expertise of engineers; he called, perhaps somewhat tongue- in-cheek, for a Soviet of Engineers.

These savage onslaughts on the established order gained Veblen many new admirers, while making some of his old friends uncomfortable. Walton Hamilton wrote that Veblen had better return to his work as a "certified economist," while Randolph Bourne and Maxwell Anderson felt that Veblen's ideas were seminal and permeated the whole intellectual atmosphere. The final accolade came when the great curmudgeon of American letters, H. L. Mencken, as conservative in his political views as he was radical in his cultural criticism, honored Veblen with a fierce assault: "In a few months," he wrote, "almost in a few days, he was all over The Nation, The Dial, The New Repub- lic and the rest of them, and his books and pamphlets began to pour from the presses. . . . Everyone of intellectual pretensions read his works. . . There were Veblenists, Veblen clubs, Veblen remedies for all the sorrows of the world. There were even, in Chicago, Veblen girls--perhaps Gibson girls grown middle-aged and despairing." Mencken felt that this Veblen adulation was all so much hokum. He considered Veblen's writing intolerably bad, and his thinking "loose, flabby, cocksure, and preposterous."

Mencken predicted that the Veblen vogue would soon subside. He proved to be correct. The mood of revolt that had followed the failure of Wilsonianism soon subsided. Some leading intellectuals left in despair for exile in Europe, but the majority made their peace with America or drowned their anxieties in the pleasure-seeking whirl of the Jazz Age. Radicals were hounded and perse- cuted by the notorious Lusk Committee of the New York State Legislature and by the infamous raids of Attorney-General Mitchell Palmer, who led the man- hunt against those suspected of sympathy with the Russian Revolution.

Veblen's career at The Dial came to an end after one year, when it was turned Into a literary magazine. The newly organized New School for Social Research now offered him refuge. It boasted an eminent faculty including Charles Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Wesley Mitchell, Harold Laski, Alexander Goldenweiser, and Horace Kallen, and promised to become the fountainhead of revolutionary departures in American education. Veblen had a fairly comfortable position there. His salary of $6000 was mainly contributed by a former student from the Chicago days who admired him greatly. He again offered his by now-famous course on "Economic Factors in Civilization"; he also worked on articles that continued The Dial series and were now pub- lished by another radical publication, The Freeman, and prepared his last book Absentee Ownership. But he was becoming increasingly tired. He was now in his middle sixties, and age began to make itself felt.

Two ironic incidents from this last period of his life are worth recounting. The editor of a leading Jewish magazine approached Veblen and asked him to write a paper discussing whether Jewish intellectual productivity would be increased if the Jews were given a land of their own and Jewish intellectuals were released from the taboos and restrictions that impeded them in the gentile world. Veblen accepted, and delivered his essay on "The Intellectual Pre- eminence of the Jews," in which he argued that the intellectual achievement of the Jews was due to their marginal status and persecuted role in an alien world, and that their springs of creativity would dry up should they become a people like any other in their own homeland. Needless to say, the essay was not published by the editor who had commissioned it. It appeared instead in The Political Science Quarterly of Columbia University.

A few years later, some of Veblen's admirers urged his nomination for the presidency of the American Economic Association. Conservative members of the old school objected. After a long academic wrangle it was decided that he would be nominated, provided that he would consent to become a member of the Association. Veblen refused. "They didn't offer it to me when I needed it," he said.

In the middle twenties, although he had attracted new admirers and dis- ciples, Veblen felt increasingly lonely in New York. He had some desultory contact with the leaders of what was to become the short-lived technocratic movement, but none of this seemed to satisfy him. When meeting with friends or foreign visitors, he often remained silent throughout the encounter. "His pro- tective mechanism of silence had become his master," says Dorfman. He be- came increasingly helpless in practical matters and relied almost entirely on the protection of his friends. Ellen Rolfe died in May, 1926. In 1927 Veblen decided to return to California in the company of his stepdaughter Becky. He pre- tended to himself that this was only a temporary visit, but probably knew there would be no return.

Back in Palo Alto, Veblen lived for a year in an old town shack that he still owned from his Stanford days. He later moved into his mountain cabin in the adjacent hills, where he lived in almost total isolation. Eager for conversation, he felt altogether lonely and neglected. Everyone, he thought, had forgotten him. Worried about his financial situation, he tried (and failed) to recoup his investments in the collapsing raisin industry. Absentee ownership did not profit him.

In the summer of 1929, Veblen made plans to return East, but a relative persuaded him that his ill health would not allow this. On August 3, 1929, he died of heart disease.

As the depression struck America in the year of Veblen's death, he was suddenly rediscovered. Some of his admirers and disciples, including Rexford Tugwell, A. A. Berle, Thurman Arnold, and Felix Frankfurter, became lead- ing members of Roosevelt's braintrust or intellectual spokesmen for the New Deal. They all attempted to apply Veblenian doctrine to the social and eco- nomic reconstruction, which was now the order of the day. Leading left-wing spokesmen and publicists such as Stuart Chase, John Chamberlain, and Max Lerner spread Veblen's message. William Ogburn and Robert Lynd incorpo- rated his thought into the fabric of their sociological investigations. In 1938, when a number of leading intellectuals were queried by the editors of The New Republic to name "The Books that Changed [Their] Minds'' Veblen's name came first on the list. At the time of his death, the total sales of his ten books was approximately 4o,ooo copies. Over half of this was represented by The Theory of the Leisure Class, the only book by which he was then re- membered. Between February 1930 and September 1934, his books sold about 4,000 copies. Today most of them are available in paperback, and The Theory of the Leisure Class has become a perennial best-seller in a variety of inex- pensive editions. Veblen paid a heavy penalty for having taken the lead twenty years too soon.


From Coser, 1977:285-289.


The Work

There are at least three Thorstein Veblens: first, the seriously un- serious, reverently irreverent, amoral moralist whose iconoclastic assault on the received pieties of America place him in the front ranks of social critics. Second, there is the economist whose institutional economics and meticulous anatomy of American high finance and business enterprise have earned him several generations of distinguished followers and a permanent niche among the greats of political economy. Finally, there is the sociologist to whom we owe theories of socially induced motivations, of the social determinants of knowledge, and of social change. This account will be concerned mainly with the third Veblen.

It is difficult to summarize the major aspects of Veblen's thought not only because he wrote in a complicated, illusive, and polysyllabic style, but also be- cause he lacked a systematic exposition and deliberately attempted to pass on his highly charged value judgments as statements of fact.

In a writer like Marx it is relatively easy to distinguish analysis from prophecy, and normative from scientific judgment; not so with Veblen. Al- though he used to repeat to his students, "We are interested in what is, not in what ought to be," even the casual reader will soon discover that behind the scientific stance were hidden strong moral impulses. For example, it is hard to take him seriously when he insists that he uses the term "waste" in a neutral sense, and that "it is not to be taken in an odious sense, as implying an illegitimate expenditure of human products or of human life." Nor is his use of what Kenneth Burke has termed a perspective through incongruity, innocent of moral connotations, as when he compares the livery of servants with the vestments of the priest, "a body servant, constructively in attendance upon the person of the divinity whose livery he wears." When Veblen deliber- ately links words with respectable and dishonorable meanings such as "trained incapacity," "business sabotage," "blameless cupidity," "conscientious withhold- ing of efficiency," "collusive sobriety" or "sagacious restriction of output," he uses these balanced opposites to pass moral judgment under the protective coloration of detached description. Veblen belonged to the company of Swift as well as to that of Marx.

These are some of the difficulties in attempting to separate the sub- stantive content of Veblen's thought from its ethical husk. But the obstacles are not insurmountable, although, incidentally, Veblen himself would hardly have approved of the enterprise.

From Coser, 1977:263-264.

The General Approach

Veblen's point of departure was a critical dissection of the doctrines of the classic economists in the light of evolutionary and sociological reasoning. He objected to the notion that the "laws" they had constructed were timeless generalizations and contended instead that the economic behavior of men, like any other human activity, had to be analyzed in terms of the social context in which it was imbedded. He further objected to the deriving of economic behavior from alleged utilitarian and hedonistic propensities generic to man- kind. The categories of the classical economists, he argued, could be applied only to special historical circumstances and in very restricted contexts. Thus, primitive economic behavior could not be understood in terms of Ricardian notions. "A gang of Aleutian Islanders,' Veblen wrote derisively, "slashing about in the wrack and surf with rakes and magical incantations for the cap- ture of shell-fish are held, in point of taxonomic reality, to be engaged in a feat of hedonistic equilibration in rent, wages, and interest."

"The hedonistic conception of man," Veblen argued bitingly, "is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains, who oscillates like a homogenous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He has neither antecedent nor conse- quence. He is an isolated, definitive human datum.... Self-imposed in elemental space, he spins symrnetrically about his own spiritual axis.... The hedonistic man is not a prime mover. He is not the seat of a process of living."

In contrast to an obsolete economics that centers attention upon alleged transhistorical laws and utilitarian or hedonistic calculations, Veblen urged a new economics that is historical, or, to use his own terminology, evolutionary, and that is based on an activistic conception of man. "It is the characteristic of man to do something.... He is not simply a bundle of desires that are to be saturated . . . but rather a coherent structure of propensities and habits which seek realization and expression in an unfolding activity." The economic life history of the individual "is a cumulative process of adaptations of means to ends." What is true of the individual is true of the community. It too is continually engaged in an active process of adaptation of economic means to economic ends. "Evolutionary economics must be the theory of a process of cultural growth as determined by the economic interest, a theory, of a cumula- tive sequence of economic institutions stated in terms of the process itself."

Veblen conceived of the evolution of mankind in Spencerian or Darwinian fashion as a process of selective adaptation to the environment. According, to him, there was no goal to historical evolution as the Hegelians and Marxists had claimed, but rather "a scheme of blindly cumulative causation, in which there is no trend, no final term, no consummation.''

Human evolution, Veblen argued, involved above all the invention and use of ever more effective technologies. "The process of cumulative change that is to be accounted for is the sequence of change in the methods of doing things--the methods of dealing with the material means of life." Hence, "the state of the industrial arts" ultimately determined the state of adaptation of man to his natural environment. Technology, moreover, likewise determined man's adjustment to his social environment.

A man's position in the technological and economic sphere, Veblen argued, determines his outlook and his habits of thought. Similarly, habits and customs, ways of acting and ways of thinking grow within communities as they are engaged in their struggle to wrest a livelihood from nature. Such habits and customs in their turn crystallize over time into institutional molds into which communities attempt to press their component members. Institutions are clusters of habits and customs that are sanctioned by the community. An in- stitution "is of the nature of a usage which has become axiomatic and indis- pensable by habituation and general acceptance." The evolution of human societies, contended Veblen, must be seen as "a process of natural selection of institutions." "Institutions are not only themselves the result of a selective and adaptive process which shapes the prevailing or dominant types of spiritual attitude and aptitudes; they are at the same time special methods of life and human relations.''

Hence, the scheme of man's social evolution is to Veblen essentially a pat- tern of institutional change rooted in the development of the industrial arts. Four main stages of evolution are distinguished: the peaceful savage economy of neolithic times; the predatory barbarian economy in which the institutions of warfare, property, masculine prowess and the leisure class originated; the premodern period of handicraft economy; and finally the modern era domi- nated by the machine. Much of this, especially the distinction between savagery and barbarism, was based on conjectural history. But Veblen accepted it, despite his often caustic remarks about such history. When a student once asked him what he considered the difference between real and conjectural history, he answered that the relation was about the same as that between a real horse and a sawhorse.

Veblen's theory of evolutionary stages may well be relegated to the museum of antiquities, but his more general theory of technological determination, though often blended with one or another form of Marxism, has continued to exert influence among contemporary social scientists. Much current work in anthropology is still informed by his view--for example, that "A study of . . . primitive cultures . . . shows a close correlation between the material (in- dustrial and pecuniary) life of any given people and their civic, domestic, and religious scheme of life; the myths and the religious cult reflect the character of these other--especially the economic and domestic--institutions in a pecu- liarly naive and truthful manner." The main thrust of Veblen's work, how- ever, does not come in his anthropological studies but rather in his discussion of contemporary or near-contemporary society. Here his distinction between industrial and pecuniary types of employment is crucial.

Veblen's central idea in regard to the modern capitalist world is that it is based on an irremediable opposition between business and industry, ownership and technology, pecuniary and industrial employment--between those who make goods and those who make money, between workmanship and salesman- ship. This distinction served Veblen as a major weapon in his attack against the prevailing scheme of things in America, and against prevailing evolutionary doctrine. His fellow evolutionists, men like his former teacher Sumner, argued that the leading industrialists and men of finance, having shown in the com- petitive struggle that they were "the fittest," had to be regarded as the flowers of modern civilization. Veblen argued that, far from being the fittest agents of evolutionary advancement, men engaged in pecuniary activities were parasites growing fat on the technological leadership and innovation of other men. "The leisure class lives by the industrial community rather than in it.'' The "captains of industry" made no industrial contribution and therefore had no progressive function in the evolutionary process; rather, they retarded and dis- torted it.

Veblen adapted the Spencerian distinction between militant and industrial societies to his own uses. Whereas Spencer had argued that businessmen were engaged in a peaceful way of life, which stood in opposition to that of the militant warrior, Veblen insisted that the "captains of industry" were only pursuing the predatory ways of their militant forebears under new circum- stances. American robber barons were as eager to exploit the underlying popula- tion as had been their medieval ancestors. The price system in which business- men and speculators were involved only hampered and impeded the system of industrial arts and so delayed the forward course of mankind's evolutionary advancement. The differential income businessmen derive from their position in the price system is far from a reward for creative entrepreneurship but rather a ransom exacted from the underlying productive population. The in- stitution of absentee ownership, the foundation of the modern price system, creates perpetual crises and competitive anarchy leading to the "sabotage" rather than the advancement of production.


In tune with his overall theory of technological determinants of thought, Veblen argued that positions in the spheres of industrial or of pecuniary em- ployment respectively fostered radically different casts of mind or habits of thought. Those in pecuniary employment were inclined toward an "animistic bent," that is, they thought in magical categories. Those involved in industrial employment, on the other hand, were impelled to think in rational, matter-of- fact terms. Magical and animistic types of reasoning are at variance with the requirements of modern industrial societies; such reasoning is partly a survival from earlier barbaric conditions of life and partly a response to the existential conditions of those who continue to depend on luck in their speculative ma- nipulations. Modern industry depends on rationality and, in turn, fosters it. "In the modern industrial communities, industry is, to a constantly increasing extent, being organized in a comprehensive system of organs and functions mutually conditioning one another; and therefore freedom from all bias in the causal apprehension of phenomena grows constantly more requisite to efficiency on the part of men concerned in industry.''


Veblen believed that the major disciplining agent in the modern world was the machine process of production. "The machine technology," he rea- soned, "rests on a knowledge of impersonal, material cause and effect.... Within the range of this machine-guided work, and within the range of modern life so far as it is guided by the machine process, the cause of things is given mechanically, impersonally, and the resultant discipline is a discipline in the handling of impersonal facts for mechanical effect. It inculcates thinking in terms of opaque, impersonal cause and effect, to the neglect of those norms of validity that rest on usage and on the conventional standards handed down by usage.'' This being the case, Veblen argued further, the future evolution of mankind depended on those whose minds had been disciplined by involvement in the industrial arts and in the machine process. Further evolutionary ad- vances could be expected only if the habits inculcated by the disciplinary effects of the machine prevailed over the predatory life-styles and the magical and animistic casts of thought of those involved in pecuniary employment.

From Coser, 1977:264-268.

Anatomy of Competition

Veblen's work is especially noteworthy when he analyzes and dissects the habits of thought and modes of conduct that underlie competitive relations between social actors. He advanced a sophisticated theory of the social sources of competitiveness in human affairs. Self-esteem, he argued, is only a reflection of the esteem accorded by one's fellows. Consequently, when such esteem is not forthcoming because a person has failed to excel in prized competitive en- deavors, he suffers from a loss of self-esteem. The drive for ever-renewed exer- tion in a competitive culture is therefore rooted in the fear of loss of self- esteem.

Those members of the community who fall short of [a] somewhat in- definite, normal degree of prowess or of property suffer in the esteem of their fellow-men; and consequently they also suffer in their own esteem since the usual basis of self-respect is the respect accorded by one's neighbors. Only individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their fellows. . . . So soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of popular esteem, it becomes also a requisite to that complacency which we call self-respect.

In a competitive culture, where men judge their worth in comparison with that of their fellows they are bound to a perpetually revolving Ixion's wheel because they constantly aspire to outdo their neighbors.

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford ap- preciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. . . the end sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the rest of the com- munity in point of pecuniary strength. So long as the comparison is dis- tinctly unfavorable to himself, the normal, average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his present lot; and when he has reached what may be called the normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a rest- less straining to place a wider and ever widening pecuniary interval between himself and the average standard.

Veblen is at his best when he analyzes the various means by which men attempt to symbolize their high standing in the continuous struggle for com- petitive advantage. Conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, conspicuous display of symbols of high standing are to Veblen some of the means by which men attempt to excel their neighbors and so attain heightened self-evaluation "High-bred manners and ways of living are items of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. . . . Conspicuous con- sumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentlemen of leisure" "With the inheritance of gentility goes the inheritance of obligatory leisure." Conspicuous consumption or conspicuous leisure need not necessarily be engaged in directly by those in search of heightened competitive standing. Rather, such characteristic life-styles may be displayed by persons who are dependent on the head of a household--his wife and servants, for example--to enhance the status of the master. In the modern world, the head of the middle- class household has been forced by economic circumstances to gain a livelihood in an occupation, "but the middle-class wife still carries on the business of vicarious leisure, for the good name of the household and its master." The liveried servant displays his multi-colored coat of servitude not to improve his own image but rather to symbolize that of his master.

In the aristocratic age, "the age of barbarism," such characteristically "wasteful" styles of competitive display were limited to the leisure class, the top of the social pyramid. Now, Veblen contended, they tend to permeate the whole social structure. Each class copies the life-styles of its superordinates to the extent of its ability. "The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life invoked in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal." "The canon of reputability" must adapt itself to the economic circumstances and the traditions of each particular class, but it permeates all society to greater or less degrees. Though originating among the leisure class, it characterizes the total culture and shapes its characteristic life-style. This is why even the poor, though they are physically better off in modern society than their forebears were in their time, suffer more. "The existing system has not made. . . the industrious poor poorer as measured absolutely but it does tend to make them relatively poorer, in their own eyes . . . and . . . that is what seems to count." Clearly, Veblen, like others before and after him, had in effect come upon the idea of "relative deprivation."

In Veblen's opinion the simplistic notions of human motivation on which classical economics rest cannot serve to explain the springs of action of man in modern pecuniary civilization. It is not the propensity to save or to truck and barter that animates man in the modern world, but the propensity to excel his neighbor. The struggle for competitive standing becomes a basic datum if one is to understand the institutional framework of modern economic behavior.

From Coser, 1977:268-269.

Sociology of Knowledge

Throughout his writings Veblen emphasized the ways in which habits of thought are an outcome of habits of life and stressed the dependence of thought styles on the organization of the community. "The scheme of thought or of knowledge," he wrote, "is in good part a reverberation of the schemes of life."

In his anthropological writings, Veblen makes a sharp distinction between peaceable agricultural communities in the age of savagery and the predatory life of pastoral people. He relates their different life-styles to characteristically different religious orientations. In agricultural societies one is likely to find a polytheistic theology as a replica of the various powers of nature. "The relation of the deities to mankind is likely to be that of consanguinity, and as if to emphasize the peaceable noncoercive character of the divine order of things, the deities are in the main very apt to be females. The matter of interests dealt with in the cosmological theories are chiefly matters of the livelihood of the people." By contrast, predatory cultures, with their more centralized authority- structures and their warrior chiefs, will tend to have monotheistic religious systems, and there will be an emphasis on the arbitrary schemes of divine government. "Such a people will adopt male deities, in the main, and will impute to them a coercive, imperious, arbitrary animus and a degree of princely dignity."

Veblen distinguishes between earlier stages of human evolution, when whole communities exhibited characteristic habits of thoughts, and later stages, when human societies have differentiated into distinct strata, with distinct occupational roles emerging. Here different habits of thought exist side by side and are associated with location in the class and occupational structure. "The pecuniary employments call into action chiefly [the invidious] aptitudes and propensities, and act selectively to conserve them in the population. The in- dustrial employments, on the other hand, chiefly exercise the [noninvidious or economical attitudes], and act to conserve them.'' Pecuniary employments foster magical beliefs in luck; the industrial arts foster rationality.

Veblen argues that habits of thought, which arise in tune with a man's position in the social and occupational order, find their reflection in types of knowledge as well as in behavior. "The scheme of life which men perforce adopt under the exigencies of an industrial situation shapes their habit of thought on the side of their behavior.... Each individual is but a single complex of habits of thought, and the same psychical mechanism that expresses itself in one direction as conduct expresses itself in another direction as knowl- edge."

These are, of course, fairly general statements, and Veblen never attempted to verify them in a systematic manner. Yet throughout his work he provides telling illustrations. For example, Veblen had a very keen eye for instances of maladaptation--of dysfunctions as the modern sociologist would call them-- that arise from a lack of congruity between habits of thought and occupational or technological settings. His notion of "trained incapacity" indicates one such instance of maladaptation. This applies to a person who has been so thoroughly trained for one occupational setting that he finds it impossible to operate effec- tively in a different situation; the very effectiveness of his training in the past leads to inappropriate behavior in the present.

Veblen not only stressed how habits of thought arise from social and oc- cupational placement, but he also advanced a theory of the social determinants of cognitive interests. He accounted for the tendency of the leisure class to be drawn to classical studies, law, and politics, rather than to the natural sciences because of the pragmatic interests of its members. "The interest with which [a] discipline is approached is therefore not commonly the intellectual or cognitive interest simply. It is largely the practical interest of the exigencies of that relation of mastery in which the members of the class are placed." For Veblen, science and scientific attitudes are rooted in material exigencies; only those members of the community who are engaged in the industrial arts are in tune with such exigencies and hence are drawn to the study of the sciences.

These examples suggest that Veblen was already engaged in an analysis of what are in effect the latent functions of a wide range of types of conduct and habits of thought. Robert K. Merton drew upon Veblen as well as on a long line of previous theorists when he formulated the notions of latent and manifest functions. Merton also pointed out that Veblen's gift for seeing para- doxical, ironic, and satiric aspects of social life predisposed him to pay attention to latent functions.

From Coser, 1977:270-271.

Functional Analysis

When Veblen describes the various manifestations of the pattern of con- spicuous consumption, he is always at pains to ferret out their latent functions. Manifestly, candles are meant to provide light and automobiles are means of transportation. But under the pecuniary scheme they serve the latent function of indicating and enhancing status. Candle light at dinner indicates that the host makes claims to a style of gracious living that is peculiar to the upper class; one drives a Cadillac to indicate that he belongs to a stratum superior to that of Chevrolet owners; one serves caviar to symbolize a refinement of the palate that is the mark of a gentleman. Patterns of consumption, and pat- terns of conduct generally, must never be explained in terms of manifest func- tions alone but must be seen as having the latent function of enhancing status. In some cases, indeed, no manifest function may be served at all and the pattern can be explained only by status enhancement. The Chinese man- darin, when asked why he cultivates long fingernails, might answer that "this is the custom"; the analyst, however, will conclude that the man who cultivates long fingernails cannot possibly work with his hands and must therefore occupy an honorific position.

One last example will suffice. When Veblen spoke of the prevalence among journeyman printers of dram-drinking, "treating," and smoking in public places, a pattern apparently quite marked in his day, he gave a func- tional explanation in terms of the conditions of life of such men. The members of this occupation, he explained, have a higher rate of geographic and em- ployment mobility than most others. As a consequence, "these men are con- stantly thrown in contact with new groups of acquaintances, with whom the relations established are transient or ephemeral, but whose good opinion is valued none the less for the time being." Hence, a journeyman's ability to consume in an ostentatious manner in company and to treat his fellows may be conceived as serving to establish quick contact and to enhance his status in their eyes. The capacity to "give" to others elicits deference and admiration in a transient environment where other symbolizations of status, such as high standing in the residential neighborhood, are not available.


From Coser, 1977:271-272.

The Theory of Social Change

Veblen's theory of social change is essentially a technological theory of history. He believed that in the last analysis the"state of the industrial arts," that is, the technology available to a society, determines the character of its culture. Invention was the mother of necessity. Yet this influence of technology, while crucial, was to Veblen by no means immediate and direct. A new technology does not automatically bring forth new systems of laws, new moral attitudes, or new types of education. Rather, it challenges old institutions and evokes their resistance. "Institutions are products of the past process, are adapted to past circumstances, and are therefore never in full accord with the requirements of the present." Those who have a "vested interest'' in the old order will bend every effort to maintain old institutions even when they are no longer in tune with technological developments. The characteristic attitude of those advocates of the status quo "may be summed up in the maxim: 'What- ever is, is right;' whereas the law of natural selection as applied to human institutions, gives the axiom: 'Whatever is, is wrong." In the end, Veblen believed, a new technology erodes vested ideas, overcomes vested interests, and reshapes institutions in accord with its own needs. But this process may take considerable time, and in that time lag--when, for example, an industrial society is still governed by legal and moral rules dating from the handicraft era--society suffers from the waste that is brought about by the lack of cor- respondence between its institutions and its technology.

In periods of transition between an old order and one about to be born, social conflicts are likely to be accentuated. In contrast to Marx, Veblen did not conceive of the class struggle as the motor of history. He saw as the shap- ing force of history the clash between advancing technology and retarding in- stitutions. Only during periods when this clash was particularly acute did he expect an exacerbation of class antagonisms between those engaged in the pecuniary employments, who had vested interest in things as they were, and those in industrial employments who were in tune with the technological de- mands of the hour.

Although he was beholden to a general evolutionary doctrine, Veblen did not believe in unilinear evolution. He was acutely aware of what later theorists called "the skipping of evolutionary stages"; hence he focused attention on "the advantage of borrowing the technological arts rather than developing them by home growth." When technologies are borrowed from another society, Veblen argued, they "do not carry over the fringe of other cultural elements that have grown up about them in the course of their development and use." Technological elements can therefore be acquired ready-made and they do not carry the institutional ballast with which they were freighted in the country of origin. Thus the Germans took over British machine technology "without the fault of its qualities." While in England older institutions still hampered and impeded this technology and older and newer technological techniques and processes existed side by side, the Germans took over the more advanced technologies and applied them to the fullest in an environment unimpeded by vested interests. These observations seem especially pertinent today in the light of the problems faced by developing societies.

While borrowing may help to accelerate the evolutionary growth of the borrowing country, it leads to relative decline in the competitive position of the country of origin. This is "the penalty of taking the lead." An industrial system like that of England, which "has been long engaged in a course of im- provement, extension, innovation and specialization, will in the past have committed itself to what was at the time an adequate scale of appliances and schedule of processes." But such established equipment will be out of date as the industrial process proceeds. Hence obsolescent technologies are likely to exist alongside new equipment. There will be improvements, adapta- tions, and repairs but also a "fatal reluctance or inability to overcome this all-pervading depreciation by obsolescence." The railroads of Great Britain, for example, were built with too narrow a gauge and the "terminal facilities, tracks, shunting facilities, and all the means of handling freight . . . are all adapted to the bobtailed car." From the point of view of the community at large all this equipment should be discarded, but since it is still profitable the captains of the railroad industry have a vested interest in maintaining it, thereby contributing to the industrial decadence of England. "All this does not mean that the British have sinned against the canons of technology. It is only that they are paying the penalty for having been thrown into the lead and so having shown the way."

Veblen wrote this when England was governed by Lloyd George, and Germany was ruled by the Kaiser. But fifty years later, the England of Prime Minister Edward Heath and the Germany of Chancellor Willy Brandt still seem subject to the same forces; and the contemporary development of Japan furnishes even stronger evidence for Veblen's far-reaching prescience.

The preceding pages have not touched upon a number of Veblenian notions, in particular his theory of "instincts." This omission is deliberate. "The instinct of workmanship," "the parental bent," or "the instinct of idle curiosity"--concepts Veblen used to "explain" the concern for a job well done, the solicitude for one's offspring, and the motive force for scientific curiosity respectively--are vague and unsatisfactory. Veblen introduced them as a kind of deus ex machina when he wished to defend a practice or behavior pattern he liked to see maintained, even though his "instincts" are not meant to denote unchangeable biological impulses but rather prepotent propensities subject to cultural conditioning and modification. Veblen, like all instinct theorists, was prone to infer the operation of instincts from observed behavior--which these instincts were then supposed to explain. This device has little scientific utility.

What is likely to endure in Veblen's sociological work is not the theory of instincts but his theory of the socially induced motivations for competitive behavior, his acute ferreting out of latent functions, and certain elements of his technological interpretation of history and of his theory of the lag between technological and institutional development. It is likely that analysts of the process of "modernization" will still be making use of his notions about the "advantage of borrowing" and the "penalty of taking the lead" when his doctrine of instinct will long have been forgotten.

From Coser, 1977:272-274.



Portions of Veblen's original works: Conspicuous Consumption

From Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: Macmillan, 1902), pp. 68-101.

Conspicuous Consumption

In what has been said of the evolution of the vicarious leisure class and its differentiation from the general body of the working classes, reference has been made to a further division of labour, --that between different servant classes. One portion of the servant class, chiefly those persons whose occupation is vicarious leisure, come to undertake a new, subsidiary range of duties--the vicarious consumption of goods. The most obvious form in which this consumption occurs is seen in the wearing of liveries and the occupation of spacious servants' quarters. Another, scarcely less obtrusive or less effective form of vicarious consumption, and a much more widely prevalent one, is the consumption of food, clothing, dwelling, and furniture by the lady and the rest of the domestic establishment.

But already at a point in economic evolution far antedating the emergence of the lady, specialised consumption of goods as an evidence of pecuniary strength had begun to work out in a more or less elaborate system. The beginning of a differentiation in consumption even antedates the appearance of anything that can fairly be called pecuniary strength. It is traceable back to the initial phase of predatory culture, and there is even a suggestion that an incipient differentiation in this respect lies back of the beginnings of the predatory life. . . .

In the earlier phases of the predatory culture the only economic differentiation is a broad distinction between an honourable superior class made up of the able-bodied men on the one side, and a base inferior class of labouring women on the other. According to the ideal scheme of life in force at that time it is the office of the men to consume what the women produce. Such consumption as falls to the women is merely incidental to their work; it is a means to their continued labour, and not a consumption directed to their own comfort and fullness of life. Unproductive consumption of goods is honourable, primarily as a mark of prowess and a perquisite of human dignity; secondarily it becomes substantially honourable in itself, especially the consumption of the more desirable things. The consumption of choice articles of food, and frequently also of rare articles of adornment, becomes tabu to the women and children; and if there is a base (servile) class of men, the tabu holds also for them. With a further advance in culture this tabu may change into simple custom of a more or less rigorous character; but whatever be the theoretical basis of the distinction which is maintained, whether it be a tabu or a larger conventionality, the features of the conventional scheme of consumption do not change easily. When the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its fundamental institution of chattel slavery, the general principle, more or less rigorously applied, is that the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence. In the nature of things, luxuries and the comforts of life belong to the leisure class. Under the tabu, certain victuals, and more particularly certain beverages, are strictly reserved for the use of the superior class.

The ceremonial differentiation of the dietary is best seen in the use of intoxicating beverages and narcotics. If these articles of consumption are costly, they are felt to be noble and honorific. Therefore the base classes, primarily the women, practise an enforced continence with respect to these stimulants, except in countries where they are obtainable at a very low cost. From archaic times down through all the length of the patriarchical regime it has been the office of the women to prepare and administer these luxuries, and it has been the perquisite of the men of gentle birth and breeding to consume them. Drunkenness and the other pathological consequences of the free use of stimulants therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a mark, at the second remove, of the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence. Infirmities induced by over-indulgence are among some peoples freely recognised as manly attributes. It has even happened that the name for certain diseased conditions of the body arising from such an origin has passed into everyday speech as a synonym for "noble" or "gentle." It is only at a relatively early stage of culture that the symptoms of expensive vice are conventionally accepted as marks of a superior status, and so tend to become virtues and command the deference of the community; but the reputability that attaches to certain expensive vices long retains so much of its force as to appreciably lessen the disapprobation visited upon the men of the wealthy or noble class for any excessive indulgence. The same invidious distinction adds force to the current disapproval of any indulgence of this kind on the part of women, minors, and inferiors. This invidious traditional distinction has not lost its force even among the more advanced peoples of to-day. Where the example set by the leisure class retains its imperative force in the regulation of the conventionalities, it is observable that the women still in great measure practise the same traditional continence with regard to stimulants.


During the earlier stages of economic development, consumption of goods without stint, especially consumption of the better grades of goods,--ideally all consumption in excess of the subsistence minimum, --pertains normally to the leisure class. This restriction tends to disappear, at least formally, after the later peaceable stage has been reached, with private ownership of goods and an industrial system based on wage labour or on the petty household economy. But during the earlier quasi-peaceable stage, when so many of the traditions through which the institution of a leisure class has affected the economic life of later times were taking form and consistency, this principle has had the force of a conventional law. It has served as the norm to which consumption has tended to conform, and any appreciable departure from it is to be regarded as an aberrant form, sure to be eliminated sooner or later in the further course of development.

The quasi-peaceable gentleman of leisure, then, not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialisation as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities. In the process of gradual amelioration which takes place in the articles of his consumption, the motive principle and the proximate aim of innovation is no doubt the higher efficiency of the improved and more elaborate products for personal comfort and well-being. But that does not remain the sole purpose of their consumption. The canon of reputability is at hand and seizes upon such innovations as are, according to its standard, fit to survive. Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.

This growth of punctilious discrimination as to qualitative excellence in eating, drinking, etc., presently affects not only the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual activity of the gentleman of leisure. He is no longer simply the successful, aggressive male,--the man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. In order to avoid stultification he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods. He becomes a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees of merit, in manly beverages and trinkets, in seemly apparel and architecture, in weapons, games, dancers, and the narcotics. This cultivation of the aesthetic faculty requires time and application, and the demands made upon the gentleman in this direction therefore tend to change his life of leisure into a more or less arduous application to the business of learning how to live a life of ostensible leisure in a becoming way. Closely related to the requirement that the gentleman must consume freely and of the right kind of goods, there is the requirement that he must know how to consume them in a seemly manner. His life of leisure must be conducted in due form. Hence arise good manners in the way pointed out in an earlier chapter. High-bred manners and ways of living are items of conformity to the norm of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.

Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments. Presents and feasts had probably another origin than that of naive ostentation, but they acquired their utility for this purpose very early, and they have retained that character to the present; so that their utility in this respect has now long been the substantial ground on which these usages rest. Costly entertainments, such as the potlatch or the ball, are peculiarly adapted to serve this end. The competitor with whom the entertainer wishes to institute a comparison is, by this method, made to sense as a means to the end. He consumes vicariously for his host at the same time that he is a witness to the consumption of that excess of good things which his host is unable to dispose of single-handed, and he is also made to witness his host's facility in etiquette.


As wealth accumulates, the leisure class develops further in function and structure, and there arises a differentiation within the class. There is a more or less elaborate system of rank and grades. This differentiation is furthered by the inheritance of wealth and the consequent inheritance of gentility. With the inheritance of gentility goes the inheritance of obligatory leisure; and gentility of a sufficient potency to entail a life of leisure may be inherited without the complement of wealth required to maintain a dignified leisure. Gentle blood may be transmitted without goods enough to afford a reputably free consumption at one's ease. Hence results a class of impecunious gentlemen of leisure, incidentally referred to already. These half-caste gentlemen of leisure fall into a system of hierarchical gradations. Those who stand near the higher and the highest grades of the wealthy leisure class, in point of birth, or in point of wealth, or both, outrank the remoter-born and the pecuniarily weaker. These lower grades, especially the impecunious, or marginal, gentlemen of leisure, affiliate themselves by a system of dependence or fealty to the great ones; by so doing they gain an increment of repute, or of the means with which to lead a life of leisure, from their patron. They become his courtiers or retainers, servants; and being fed and countenanced by their patron they are indices of his rank and vicarious consumers of his superfluous wealth. Many of these affiliated gentlemen of leisure are at the same time lesser men of substance in their own right; so that some of them are scarcely at all, others only partially, to be rated as vicarious consumers. So many of them, however, as make up the retainers and hangers-on of the patron may be classed as vicarious consumers without qualification. Many of these again, and also many of the other aristocracy of less degree, have in turn attached to their persons a more or less comprehensive group of vicarious consumers in the persons of their wives and children, their servants, retainers, etc.


With the disappearance of servitude, the number of vicarious consumers attached to any one gentleman tends, on the whole, to decrease. The like is of course true, and perhaps in a still higher degree, of the number of dependents who perform vicarious leisure for him. In a general way, though not wholly nor consistently, these two groups coincide. The dependent who was first delegated for these duties was the wife, or the chief wife; and, as would be expected, in the later development of the institution, when the number of persons by whom these duties are customarily performed gradually narrows, the wife remains the last. In the higher grades of society a large volume of both these kinds of service is required; and here the wife is of course still assisted in the work by a more or less numerous corps of menials. But as we descend the social scale, the point is presently reached where the duties of vicarious leisure and consumption devolve upon the wife alone. In the communities of the Western culture, this point is at present found among the lower middle class.

And here occurs a curious inversion. It is a fact of common observation that in this lower middle class there is no pretence of leisure on the part of the head of the household. Through force of circumstances it has fallen into disuse. But the middle-class wife still carries on the business of vicarious leisure, for the good name of the household and its master . In descending the social scale in any modern industrial community, the primary fact--the conspicuous leisure of the master of the household-- disappears at a relatively high point. The head of the middle-class household has been reduced by economic circumstances to turn his hand to gaining a livelihood by occupations which often partake largely of the character of industry, as in the case of the ordinary business man of today. But the derivative fact--the vicarious leisure and consumption rendered by the wife, and the auxiliary vicarious performance of leisure by menials--remains in vogue as a conventionality which the demands of reputability will not suffer to be slighted. It is by no means an uncommon spectacle to find a man applying himself to work with the utmost assiduity, in order that his wife may in due form render for him that degree of vicarious leisure which the common sense of the time demands.

The leisure rendered by the wife in such cases is, of course, not a simple manifestation of idleness or indolence. It almost invariably occurs disguised under some form of work or household duties or social amenities, which prove on analysis to serve little or no ulterior end beyond showing that she does not and need not occupy herself with anything that is gainful or that is of substantial use. As has already been noticed under the head of manners, the greater part of the customary round of domestic cares to which the middle-class housewife gives her time and effort is of this character. Not that the results of her attention to household matters, of a decorative and mundificatory character, are not pleasing to the sense of men trained in middle-class proprieties; but the taste to which these effects of household adornment and tidiness appeal is a taste which has been formed under the selective guidance of a canon of propriety that demands just these evidences of wasted effort. The effects are pleasing to us chiefly because we have been taught to find them pleasing. There goes into these domestic duties much solicitude for a proper combination of form and colour, and for other ends that are to be classed as aesthetic in the proper sense of the term; and it is not denied that effects having some substantial aesthetic value are sometimes attained. Pretty much all that is here insisted on is that, as regards these amenities of life, the housewife's efforts are under the guidance of traditions that have been shaped by the law of conspicuously wasteful expenditure of time and substance. If beauty or comfort is achieved,--and it is a more or less fortuitous circumstance if they are,-- they must be achieved by means and methods that commend themselves to the great economic law of wasted effort. The more reputable, "presentable" portion of middle-class household paraphernalia are, on the one hand, items of conspicuous consumption, and on the other hand, apparatus for putting in evidence the vicarious leisure rendered by the housewife.

The requirement of vicarious consumption at the hands of the wife continues in force even at a lower point in the pecuniary scale than the requirement of vicarious leisure. At a point below which little if any pretence of wasted effort, in ceremonial cleanness and the like, is observable, and where there is assuredly no conscious attempt at ostensible leisure, decency still requires the wife to consume some goods conspicuously for the reputability of the household and its head. So that, as the latter-day outcome of this evolution of an archaic institution, the wife, who was at the outset the drudge and chattel of the man, both in fact and in theory,--the producer of goods for him to consume,--has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces. But she still quite unmistakably remains his chattel in theory; for the habitual rendering of vicarious leisure and consumption is the abiding mark of the unfree servant.

This vicarious consumption practised by the household of the middle and lower classes can not be counted as a direct expression of the leisure-class scheme of life, since the household of this pecuniary grade does not belong within the leisure class. It is rather that the leisure-class scheme of life here comes to an expression at the second remove. The leisure class stands at the head of the social structure in point of reputability; and its manner of life and its standards of worth therefore afford the norm of reputability for the community. The observance of these standards, in some degree of approximation, becomes incumbent upon all classes lower in the scale. In modern civilized communities the lines of demarcation between social classes have grown vague and transient, and wherever this happens the norm of reputability imposed by the upper class extends its coercive influence with but slight hindrance down through the social structure to the lowest strata. The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the scheme of life in vogue in the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up to that ideal. On pain of forfeiting their good name and their self-respect in case of failure, they must conform to the accepted code, at least in appearance.

The basis on which good repute in any highly organised industrial community ultimately rests is pecuniary strength; and the means of showing pecuniary strength, and so of gaining or retaining a good name, are leisure and a conspicuous consumption of goods. Accordingly, both of these methods are in vogue as far down the scale as it remains possible; and in the lower strata in which the two methods are employed, both offices are in great part delegated to the wife and children of the household. Lower still, where any degree of leisure, even ostensible, has become impracticable for the wife, the conspicuous consumption of goods remains and is carried on by the wife and children. The man of the household also can do something in this direction, and, indeed, he commonly does; but with a still lower descent into the levels of indigence--along the margin of the Slums--the man, and presently also the children, virtually cease to consume valuable goods for appearances, and the woman remains virtually the sole exponent of the household's pecuniary decency. No class of society not even the most abjectly poor, foregoes all customary conspicuous consumption. The last items of this category of consumption are not given up except under stress of the direst necessity. Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or the last pretence of pecuniary decency is put away. There is no class and no country that has yielded so abjectly before the pressure of physical want as to deny themselves all gratification of this higher or spiritual need.

From the foregoing survey of the growth of conspicuous leisure and consumption, it appears that the utility of both alike for the purposes of reputability lies in the element of waste that is common to both. In the one case it is a waste of time and effort, in the other it is a waste of goods. Both are methods of demonstrating the possession of wealth, and the two are conventionally accepted as equivalents. The choice between them is a question of advertising expediency simply, except so far as it may be affected by other standards of propriety springing from a different source. On grounds of expediency the preference may be given to the one or the other at different stages of the economic development. The question is, which of the two methods will most effectively reach the persons whose convictions it is desired to affect. Usage has answered this question in different ways under different circumstances.

So long as the community or social group is small enough and compact enough to be effectually reached by common notoriety alone,-- that is to say, so long as the human environment to which the individual is required to adapt himself in respect of reputability is comprised within his sphere of personal acquaintance and neighbourhood gossip, --so long the one method is about as effective as the other. Each will therefore serve about equally well during the earlier stages of social growth. But when the differentiation has gone farther and it becomes necessary to reach a wider human environment, consumption begins to hold over leisure as an ordinary means of decency. This is especially true during the later, peaceable economic stage. The means of communication and the mobility of the population now expose the individual to the observation of many persons who have no other means of judging of his reputability than the display of goods (and perhaps of breeding) which he is able to make while he is under their direct observation.

The modern organisation of industry works in the same direction also by another line. The exigencies of the modern industrial system frequently place individuals and households in juxtaposition between whom there is little contact in any other sense than that of juxtaposition. One's neighbours, mechanically speaking, often are socially not one's neighbours, or even acquaintances; and still their transient good opinion has a high degree of utility. The only practicable means of impressing one's pecuniary ability on these unsympathetic observers of one's everyday life is an unremitting demonstration of ability to pay. In the modern community there is also a more frequent attendance at large gatherings of people to whom one's everyday life is unknown; in such places as churches, theatres, ballrooms, hotels, parks, shops, and the like. In order to impress these transient observers, and to retain one's self-complacency under their observation, the signature of one's pecuniary strength should be written in characters which he who runs may read. It is evident, therefore, that the present trend of the development is in the direction of heightening the utility of conspicuous consumption as compared with leisure.

It is also noticeable that the serviceability of consumption as a means of repute, as well as the insistence on it as an element of decency, is at its best in those portions of the community where the human contact of the individual is widest and the mobility of the population is greatest. Conspicuous consumption claims a relatively larger portion of the income of the urban than of the rural population, and the claim is also more imperative. The result is that, in order to keep up a decent appearance, the former habitually live hand-to-mouth to a greater extent than the latter. So it comes, for instance, that the American farmer and his wife and daughters are notoriously less modish in their dress, as well as less urbane in their manners, than the city artisan's family with an equal income. It is not that the city population is by nature much more eager for the peculiar complacency that comes of a conspicuous consumption, nor has the rural population less regard for pecuniary decency. But the provocation to this line of evidence, as well as its transient effectiveness, are more decided in the city. This method is therefore more readily resorted to, and in the struggle to outdo one another the city population push their normal standard of conspicuous consumption to a higher point, with the result that a relatively greater expenditure in this direction is required to indicate a given degree of pecuniary decency in the city. The requirement of conformity to this higher conventional standard becomes mandatory. The standard of decency is higher, class for class, and this requirement of decent appearance must be lived up to on pain of losing caste.

Consumption becomes a larger element in the standard of living in the city than in the country. Among the country population its place is to some extent taken by savings and home comforts known through the medium of neighbourhood gossip sufficiently to serve the like general purpose of pecuniary repute. These home comforts and the leisure indulged in--where the indulgence is found--are of course also in great part to be classed as stems of conspicuous consumption; and much the same is to be said of the savings. The smaller amount of the savings laid by by the artisan class is no doubt due, in some measure, to the fact that in the case of the artisan the savings are a less effective means of advertisement, relative to the environment in which he is placed, than are the savings of the people living on farms and in the small villages. Among the latter, everybody's affairs, especially everybody's pecuniary status, are known to everybody else. Considered by itself simply--taken in the first degree--this added provocation to which the artisan and the urban labouring classes are exposed may not very seriously decrease the amount of savings; but in its cumulative action, through raising the standard of decent expenditure, its deterrent effect on the tendency to save cannot but be very great.


But there are other standards of repute and other, more or less imperative, canons of conduct, besides wealth and its manifestation, and some of these come in to accentuate or to qualify the broad, fundamental canon of conspicuous waste. Under the simple test of effectiveness for advertising, we should expect to find leisure and the conspicuous consumption of goods dividing the field of pecuniary emulation pretty evenly between them at the outset. Leisure might then be expected gradually to yield ground and tend to obsolescence as the economic development goes forward, and the community increases in size; while the conspicuous consumption of goods should gradually gain in importance, both absolutely and relatively, until it had absorbed all the available product, leaving nothing over beyond a bare livelihood. But the actual course of development has been somewhat different from this ideal scheme. Leisure held the first place at the start, and came to hold a rank very much above wasteful consumption of goods, both as a direct exponent of wealth and as an element in the standard of decency, during the quasi-peaceable culture. From that point onward, consumption has gained ground, until, at present, it unquestionably holds the primacy, though it is still far from absorbing the entire margin of production above the subsistence minimum.


Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer's good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful. No merit would accrue from the consumption of the bare necessaries of life, except by comparison with the abjectly poor who fall short even of the subsistence minimum; and no standard of expenditure could result from such a comparison, except the most prosaic and unattractive level of decency. A standard of life would still be possible which should admit of invidious comparison in other respects than that of opulence; as, for instance, a comparison in various directions in the manifestation of moral, physical, intellectual, or aesthetic force. Comparison in all these directions is in vogue to-day; and the comparison made in these respects is commonly so inextricably bound up with the pecuniary comparison as to be scarcely distinguishable from the latter. This is especially true as regards the current rating of expressions of intellectual and aesthetic force or proficiency; so that we frequently interpret as aesthetic or intellectual a difference which in substance is pecuniary only.

The use of the term "waste" is in one respect an unfortunate one. As used in the speech of everyday life the word carries an undertone of deprecation. It is here used for want of a better term that will adequately describe the same range of motives and of phenomena, and it is not to be taken in an odious sense, as implying an illegitimate expenditure of human products or of human life. In the view of economic theory the expenditure in question is no more and no less legitimate than any other expenditure. It is here called "caste" because this expenditure does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole, not because it is waste or misdirection of effort or expenditure as viewed from the standpoint of the individual consumer who chooses it. If he chooses it, that disposes of the question of its relative utility to him, as compared with other forms of consumption that would not be deprecated on account of their wastefulness. Whatever form of expenditure the consumer chooses, or whatever end he seeks in making his choice, has utility to him by virtue of his preference. As seen from the point of view of the individual consumer, the question of wastefulness does not arise within the scope of economic theory proper. The use of the word "waste" as a technical term, therefore, implies no deprecation of the motives or of the ends sought by the consumer under this canon of conspicuous waste.


It is obviously not necessary that a given object of expenditure should be exclusively wasteful in order to come in under the category of conspicuous waste. An article may be useful and wasteful both, and its utility to the consumer may be made up of use and waste in the most varying proportions. Consumable goods, and even productive goods generally show the two elements in combination, as constituents of their utility; although, in a general way, the element of waste tends to predominate in articles of consumption, while the contrary is true of articles designed for productive use. Even in articles which appear at first glance to serve for pure ostentation only, it is always possible to detect the presence of some, at least ostensible, useful purpose; and on the other hand, even in special machinery and tools contrived for some particular industrial process, as well as in the rudest appliances of human industry, the traces of conspicuous waste, or at least of the habit of ostentation, usually become evident on a close scrutiny. It would be hazardous to assert that a useful purpose is ever absent from the utility of any article or of any service, however obviously its prime purpose and chief element is conspicuous waste; and it would be only less hazardous to assert of any primarily useful product that the element of waste is in no way concerned in its value, immediately or remotely.

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